History of government shut downs

So the United States government has shut down much of its operations due to the decision by the Republican party that this is the only way they can repeal the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. For those who wonder how rare this kind of action is, Cannie Cass provides an entertaining history of previous fiscal crisis points.

What I learned was that from the beginning of the republic, there have been many occasions in the past where squabbling over the budget allocations resulted in government agencies not legally having the money to continue operations. But the executive went ahead and spent money anyway on credit, and Congress felt obliged to cover the costs later to avoid the government going into default. But unhappiness with this practice led to the passage of the Anti-Deficiency Act of 1884 (with major amendments in 1950 and 1982) that carried with it punishments for any government official spending money not authorized by Congress.

But there were often cases where due to wrangling and maneuvering in Congress, appropriation bills were not passed in time. Government agencies did not shut themselves down on those occasions but continued with operations because of the tacit understanding that there was no intent by Congress to defund the government and that the Congress would retroactively cover the expenditures, which they did. Basically, everyone was turning a blind eye to the Anti-Deficiency Act.

But president Jimmy Carter was having none of that laissez faire attitude to laws and in 1980 his attorney general Benjamin Civiletti ruled that if there was no authorized money, government agencies had to shut up shop. As Cass writes:

A report by what’s now the Government Accountability Office captured federal officials’ dismay: “That the federal government would shut its doors was, they said, incomprehensible, inconceivable, unthinkable.”

It almost happened. Funding for many agencies did expire, but just for a few hours, and nobody was sent home.

Near the end of his term, Civiletti further clarified the law’s meaning. In a government-wide shutdown, the military, air traffic control, prisons and other work that protects human safety or property would continue. So would things such as Social Security benefits, which Congress has financed indefinitely.

The thought of the entire government shutting down was horrifying enough that it focused everyone’s mind on getting appropriations passed on time. Which was a good thing. But it also opened the door to using the threat of a government shut down as a potent political weapon. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both ordered the shut down of the government during their terms as part of budget battles but it happened for just a few hours each time.

It was Newt Gingrich, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives (which is the body by law that must originate all spending bills), aided by then junior congressman and now Speaker John Boehner, that decided on using shut downs as a major threat and orchestrated the first major ones, for six days and 21 days in 1995. But as a result of Gingrich’s actions, Republicans took a drubbing in the polls and that has acted as a partial brake on enthusiasm among Republicans for orchestrating yet another lengthy shut down.

But this year is different. As I said in an earlier post, the Republican party has not only moved much further to the right since then and are more homogeneous in ideology, they now consist of a significant number of purists who are not interested in brokering any deals just to keep the government running and think that shutting down the government in order to defund the Affordable Care Act is a perfectly legitimate strategy. What Boehner helped create has now returned to bedevil his tenure as Speaker.

So there we are now. What is even more appalling is that the so-called ‘clean’ continuing resolution that the Senate passed that restores funding for the government without defunding Obamacare only extends funding until November 15. So even if this issue is resolved somehow and a clean bill passed (as even a few Republicans are now urging), we can expect a replay of this in just six weeks. And to add to the irony, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the one thing that Republicans have decided is their Maginot Line, is one of the few government functions unaffected by the shut down and people have started enrolling in them as of October 1.

Is threatening to shut down the government every couple of months any way to run the world’s largest economy? No wonder the Republican party is getting the nickname of ‘Banana Republicans’.


  1. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    The GOP, knowing that once people began to actually use the Affordable Care Act all hope of stealing away President Obama’s signature legislation would evaporate, had no choice but to go the way of the zealots at Masada.

    We can only hope that their end is as final.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  2. Tadas says

    Here is something that you and readers might like. It’s a 5-minute clip of Elizabeth Warren giving one of the most scathing speeches on Republicans’ actions I’ve ever heard. You had mentioned a while back as to how impressed you were with her delivery. Gathered, poised and brutally honest. I’m liking her more and more everyday!


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